Dale Earnhardt and the No. 3 Goodwrench Chevy

Dale Earnhardt's 1989 Chevrolet Monte Carlo 
Image courtesy of Lionel NASCAR Collectables/All rights reserved
Dale Earnhardt turned 61 this past Sunday, April 29.

If you've ever visited the infield at a NASCAR racetrack you'll know why I used present tense. In the hearts of Earnhardt's fans, The Intimidator still lives. Everywhere you look, you see that black Goodwrench Chevrolet and iconic stylized No. 3, from hats to shirts to flags flying high and proud. Sales of Earnhardt ("Don't call me Senior!") merchandise still rank among the highest in the industry and fans proudly display their allegiance to stock car racing's equivalent of Elvis.

Dale Earnhardt Inc. celebrated Dale Earnhardt Day 2012 with a special party at their corporate headquarters and museum. Undoubtedly in other corners of Earnhardt Nation, die-hard fans paused to remember their larger-than-life hero on the anniversary of his birth, so this week is a perfect time to remember the man whom many believe was simply the greatest driver ever to get up on the wheel.

The day Ralph Dale Earnhardt entered the world, no one in Kannapolis, NC, dreamed that his on-track legacy would include seven NASCAR Winston Cup Series championships (1980, 1986-87, 1990-91 and 1993-94), 76 Cup wins, 21 Busch Series wins, three All-Star Race victories (back then known as The Winston,) four IROC championships, more than $41 million in career earnings on the track, plus millions more in merchandise and endorsements.

It's doubtful that even Earnhardt's daddy Ralph, the 1956 Sportsman Champion and 1989  National Motorsports Press Association's Hall of Fame inductee, conceived of the level of success his son would achieve.

But “The Intimidator” didn’t just leave a static list of accomplishments and accolades. Along with his rivals Darrell Waltrip, Rusty Wallace, Geoff Bodine and anyone else who got in his way, Dale Earnhardt drove NASCAR out of the southeastern United States and into the living rooms of homes across the nation. In particular, the 1989 season cemented what would become Earnhardt’s legacy as the man who made NASCAR a truly national pastime.

That 1989 season was the first time nearly every race in the Winston Cup Series was broadcast live on national television, and you can bet fans weren't complaining about boring races. The rivalries that brought spectators to the tracks by the thousands played out in real time, adding a new dimension to the spectacle. Earnhardt’s racing success and his career skyrocketed along with the sports’ popularity.  

During that pivotal season, Earnhardt drove Richard Childress Racing's No. 3 Goodwrench Chevrolet to five wins, 14 top fives and 19 top tens. He finished second in points, just 12 behind Rusty Wallace. The Earnhardt-Wallace rivalry created excitement all season long, but it wasn't the only reason 1989 made NASCAR history.

The season kicked off at Daytona International Speedway, where Earnhardt's arch-rival Darrell Waltrip won in a Chevrolet Monte Carlo, with Hendrick teammate Ken Schrader hot on his heels and the Goodwrench Monte Carlo not far behind. Waltrip's "Icky Shuffle" in Victory Lane still ranks high on fans' list of favorite Daytona 500 memories, though Earnhardt fans counted it as another Daytona 500 that got away.

Earnhardt's first win of the 1989 season came on April 16, just before his birthday. At North Wilkesboro, the No. 3 Monte Carlo in which Earnhardt won the 1986 and 1987 Winston Cup championships sported radial tires for the first time and Earnhardt bested Alan Kulwicki by a margin of three seconds.

1989 No. 3 Goodwrench Chevy Lumina
Image courtesy of Lionel NASCAR Collectables/All rights reserved
Two races later, Chevrolet launched its replacement for the Monte Carlo - the Lumina. Debuting at Talladega, Chevrolet’s answer to the Ford Taurus was much lighter (it was aluminum) and more aerodynamic than its predecessor. While Fords swept the top three at 'Dega, Darrell Waltrip gave the Lumina its first victory in the next race,the Coca-Cola 600, three weeks later. For Waltrip it was the first of seven total wins in that model during its NASCAR run.

Earnhardt had an engine failure at Charlotte, but captured the first of his 28 total victories in the Lumina that very next week in the Budweiser 500, his first win at the Monster Mile. The radically different physics of the new body style should have been a challenge, but Earnhardt and his Kirk Shelmerdine-led team met that challenge with equanimity.

After Dover, Earnhardt sat just two points behind Waltrip and 144 ahead of Rusty Wallace. The No. 3 team took the lead with a solid run at Sears Point in Sonoma, then barreled through the rest of the season, beating and banging in his inimitable style. Wins in the Southern 500 and again at Dover kept Earnhardt in the lead but clashes with Wallace, Rudd and Bodine ate into his points lead and a camshaft failure at the fall race in Charlotte dropped him to second place.

In the season finale at Atlanta, Earnhardt finished a dominating 25.71 seconds ahead of second-place Geoff Bodine, but Rusty Wallace and Blue Max Racing's No. 27 Kodiak Pontiac finished 15th, just enough to grab the Winston Cup by a scant 12 points. Motivation, perhaps, because Dale Earnhardt and that black No. 3 Goodwrench Chevy Lumina won back-to-back championships in 1990 and 1991 with a total of 13 wins in the across the two seasons.

No other driver won as many races in the Lumina's 169 starts as Earnhardt did.

It’s fitting then, given the significance of the 1989 season, that exclusive die-casts of both makes of Earnhardt’s 1989 cars will soon be available from Lionel NASCAR Collectables as part of the NASCAR Classics line. It’s the first time that 1:24 scale replicas of these historic cars will be available for purchase under the Action Racing Collectables brand.

This weekend NASCAR heads to Talladega Superspeedway, where Earnhardt won an amazing 10 races, amassed 23 top fives and 27 top tens in 44 Cup starts. So it's also fitting to remember the Man in Black all week - it's certain that the Earnhardts- father and son- will be well-represented among the fans in the famous Talladega infield. And don't forget that grandson Jeffrey Earnhardt makes his sixth Nationwide start with his first Talladega start on Saturday.

But while we're celebrating the Intimidator's racing legacy, let's keep in mind that not only was he a champion on the track, Dale Earnhardt was instrumental in bringing the sport of NASCAR to the whole country and to the world, with 1989 playing a pivotal role in that legacy.

Special thanks to Sean Gelles and Lionel Collectibles. 
Dale Earnhardt and the No. 3 Goodwrench Chevy Dale Earnhardt and the No. 3 Goodwrench Chevy Reviewed by Janine Cloud on Friday, May 04, 2012 Rating: 5